It occurs to me that the speedy boilerplate condemnation of Mary Glasspool's consent and the long silence after an attempt to assassinate or kidnap the Anglican bishop of El Salvador last week, along with the Pope's response to sexual abuse in his church, shows a kind of persistent decay of moral leadership at the highest levels of two major Christian traditions.
I guess when they are left to their own devices and the counsel of their advisers and lawyers, the Bishops of Rome and Canterbury will choose institutional peace over the victims of abuse and the outcasts of our church and society almost every time. Maybe that's unfair, but neither is it new or particularly surprising. It was not for nothing that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night. As one watches these leaders spin, you can just see their authority--and with it the dignity and message of the Church--just drain away.
We remember Oscar Romero, a Roman Catholic bishop who was killed by an assassins bullet while he celebrated a mass. That was 30 years ago today. We also remember the martyrs of El Salvador, the priests, nuns, and lay people who were murdered, raped, jailed, and who simply disappeared because they gave voice to the poor and ministered to them. They spoke out against the injustices that robbed ordinary people of food, shelter, land and the ability to make a decent living and basic human dignity. They spoke out against a government that favored the rich to the exclusion of the poor.
In the mid-1980's, I found myself studying with one of the surviving Maryknoll nuns served in El Salvador in that period. Four other women, Maryknoll nuns and a lay worker, were kidnapped, raped and murdered for their work with the poor. She described her experience to me and others in our group. It was hard to imagine how a 95 pound school teacher with gray hair and a bookish manner could be such a threat that they would send three or four goons to beat her up. Evidently, she was more dangerous than she appeared. I think she was the courageous person I have ever known. And the gentlest. She taught us where the real church lies: whenever the people serve the poorest of the poor, the lonely and the outcast in Jesus' name, there is the church.
On our own every day level, what we do in this parish and diocese may appear very mundane by comparison to standing up to a military junta. But being a friend and apprentice of Jesus among his people is still costly, a little scary, and very important. It may involve welcoming a mentally ill young man into your church who has walked through the rain from his group home into your congregation with open arms. It may mean choosing to welcome the homeless into your church when it gets too cold outside. It may mean driving around bringing meals to the homebound who would otherwise go hungry. It may mean standing up to the media no-nothings and pot-stirrers who tell us mean-spirited lies that Jesus had nothing to do with the poor--or at least gently but firmly correcting those who are taken by their harangue.
I am certain that Romero's own journey was not easy. He was not raised to be a radical. He was raised in privilege and was appointed to care for the church in his archdiocese in a rather conventional way. Appoint priests, oversee schools, manage the books...don't rock the boat. But he had a heart for faith, and was willing to go where Jesus led him. At first tentatively, and later boldly, he began to connect the dots. He believed that the job of the church was to care for the weakest of God's people. For Romero, this was a death sentence.
The thing about walking with the poor is that may feel like death. Maybe we won't get beat up by goons, or shot by an assassin. It might mean that we are not invited to few parties or considered a little crazy by our relatives. But we are going to the places where Jesus went, we are seeing the faces that Jesus sees, and we learning love from the people for whom Jesus died and rose again.
Almighty God, you called your servant Oscar Romero to be a voice for the voiceless poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.For more on Oscar Romero, see Elizabeth Keaton's post on Telling Secrets.
See also this post on Episcopal Cafe, which describes the various observances and other stories arising out of Romero's life and the anniversary of his martyrdom.
Two more biographies: Garrison Keillor and Renny Golden.